Saturday, 7 July 2012

Identity, Death & Rebirth

In his excellent book "The Reluctant Buddhist", writer and TV presenter, William Woollard, clearly explains the difficult concepts of identity, death and rebirth in Buddhism:

"Memory is clearly crucially important to our sense of self.  It represents the accumulation of experience and knowledge that defines us.  It describes to us the route we have followed and explains why we are at this point in our life journey....

Put simply, it is memory that ensures that no matter how radical the physical and mental changes that take place in our lives as we make the transition from nine to ninety, we continue to know that we are the same person....

We must try to understand the distinction between life entity on the one hand, which Buddhism teaches is eternal, and individual identity on the other, which Buddhism teaches is short lived...

Put at its simplest, this mean that William's unique and essential identity, my appearance and my character, are temporary.  The person whom I know myself to be, no matter what changes take place in my appearance and personality as I journey through three score years and ten, is attached to this unique individual.  It is built up of the memories and the experiences, the causes and effects, that I have accumulated through this life.  It is as temporary as this life itself is.  It dies with William at the point of death.

The life entity on the other hand, or the parcel of universal life energy that now informs William's life, sometimes called the innate self, lying below self knowledge, will, when William's unique identity comes to an end, pass into a period of "neither existence nor non existence"  Then, at some time in the future, when the conditions are right, it will become manifest again in another unique individual identity.  That individual identity will also develop his or her own unique and essential sense of self, which again will be purely temporary, and die when that individual identity comes to the end of his or her life.  It will not be WIlliam 2.

In this sense then, the raw life force, goes on from lifetime to lifetime.  It is neither created not destroyed. It exists before each birth, and continues to exist after each death.  In each period of existence, Buddhism teaches, it gathers a new accumulation of causes and effects.

That accumulated cargo of causes and effects carried within the eighth consciousness (nine consciousnesses), lies below the level of the waking mind, so that each successive life form involve, each identity if you wish, will have no conscious awareness and no memory of it.  Nonetheless, Buddhism teaches that those accumulated causes and effects lying in the alaya consciousness, will have a profound effect on the actions, the thoughts and words and deeds of the life entity in the next period of existence.  This is the basis, in Buddhist teachings for so many differences in circumstances between individuals, and for many of the inexplicable effects that occue during our lives.  They are effects related to distant causes attaching to the life entity.

However, within the span of each lifetime the change of identity is complete and total.  Each one is totally different from the previous one, and crucially, each one has no memory of what went before. ...

A metaphor that one might hang on to is that of waves formed on the great face of the ocean.  Picture a vast army of waves lifting and surging across the face of the ocean as far as the eye can see and beyond.  Each wave may resemble its neighbour, but close to, each one is going to be subtly different and unique, with its own individual features and contours.  Although it may seem to be just one of a vast army, each wave has been formed around its own unique parcel of energy that has lifted it up and brought it into existence.  The wave travels for a time and then slowly collapses and sinks back into the ocean from which it came.  The unique identity of the wave has gone.  The parcel of energy that formed it however, has sunk back into the vast body of energy… within the ocean.  It will remain there, unchanged, in a state that we might call latency.  And then, when the conditions are right, it will combine again with the components of the sea water to lift another wave, which will have its own unique shape and form and characteristics. And on and on, through all eternity.  The parcel of energy, the life entity, the innate self, remains the same from existence to existence.  Each successive wave, or form that it energises, is a different and wholly temporary identity.


Buddhism places our individual human lives right at the centre of the unending universal cycle that encompasses everything, the cycle of birth and growth and decline and death.  We acknowledge that all physical existence is temporary.  We accept that all energy in the universe, including the life energy that informs living things is eternal.  Buddhism places our cycles of birth and death firmly within that context."

(William Woollard, The Reluctant Buddhist p238-241)

William Woollard was initially very sceptical about Buddhism, especially its relevance to today's western society.  This book is a fascinating read and I would strongly recommend it to people wanted to understand Buddhism, especially Nichiren Buddhism, in more detail.  Here's a link for Amazon:

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